Head Health Facts: Is Dandruff Contagious? Causes and Treatments

At a Glance

  • Dandruff can be an embarrassing problem affecting around 50 percent of the population.
  • While scientists don’t know exactly what causes dandruff, they’ve linked it to several different factors.
  • Dandruff doesn’t spread through populations, so we can be assured it’s not a contagious condition.

In general, we’re pretty well educated about many health conditions.  We might not in all cases, however, know all of the correct facts.

So when you spot a friend or colleague with dandruff flakes, how do you handle it? Do you treat them as you normally would? Or do you tend to keep your distance—just in case?

Knowing the facts about dandruff is not only reassuring to you, but it can also make a big difference in how you act around people who have dandruff. Consequently, this can have a huge impact on how they feel about themselves.

So what exactly is dandruff?  What causes it?  Is dandruff contagious?  Is there any need to keep your distance from people with dandruff to make sure you and your family are safe?

We explore all of these issues to make sure you’re in the know about dandruff.

What Is Dandruff?

Dandruff is the symptom of a skin condition which causes excessive flakes of skin to form on the scalp, or other affected area. These skin flakes combine with oils naturally produced by the skin cells and dust particles to form the large visible flakes.

What Causes Dandruff?

To date, research hasn’t been able to explain exactly what causes dandruff, but it has been linked with various different factors, including:

  • Excessively dry skin.
  • Excessively oily skin.
  • Under-stimulation of the scalp when washing.
  • Infrequent hair brushing.
  • Infrequent hair washing.
  • Some yeasts and fungi.
  • Specific skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis.
  • Medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
  • Diet.
  • Stress.

Experts at the Mayo Clinic report that dandruff can potentially affect anyone, but men are more frequently affected than women. It’s, however, more likely to occur in the earlier half of adulthood than at any other time. One important predisposing factor is having excessively dry or oily skin.

Not down to Lack of Personal Hygiene

We know for certain that dandruff isn’t a result of poor personal hygiene. It can affect people who wash their hair daily as easily as it can affect those who wash their hair less frequently.

Regular hair brushing and washing is a definite advantage when it comes to dandruff, though. It helps to massage and stimulate the scalp, dislodging old skin cells and dandruff flakes, making dandruff less visible and encouraging fewer new flakes to form.

Dandruff Is Associated with a Fungus

Although we can’t see them with the naked eye, we naturally carry around different types of bacteria and fungus on our skin. When we’re in good general health, our bodies can easily manage them. Problems only start to occur when a particular type of bacteria or a fungus reproduces to a level that the body’s unable to cope with.

Some of the organisms naturally present on the human scalp, such as Malassezia, a yeast-like fungus, uses the oil on the scalp for food. Scientists have noted an increased in the number of Malassezia to higher than normal levels in people with dandruff.

What scientists are not clear on is whether the Malassezia reproduce first and cause the dandruff, or if the dandruff provides a rich food supply which causes the increase in the number of Malassezia.

Is Malassezia Contagious?

Some studies and research reviews have examined the Malassezia fungus extensively, and have found no reason to suspect it’s contagious. When transferring spores of this fungus from host to host, it was difficult to cultivate.

This tells us that the Malassezia fungus isn’t contagious. It appears this fungus is unable to reproduce to above normal levels without the correct environment.

It’s this fact that gives some experts the notion that dandruff is actually a symptom of an underlying cause. They suggest that, for example, there’s perhaps something happening in the immune system which results in flakes being formed on the scalp.

What Else Tells Us Dandruff Isn’t Contagious?

There’s other scientific evidence that supports the fact that dandruff isn’t contagious. For example, experts have found a link between dandruff and several forms of dermatitis, and we know that dermatitis, while irritating and potentially embarrassing, isn’t contagious, according to scientists at the Journal of Dermatitis.

Dandruff and Stress

Similarly, the highly probable link between dandruff and stress is another indicator that dandruff isn’t contagious.  A disease or health condition which is contagious will be transmitted between people regardless of how much stress they’re experiencing.

Dandruff and Diet

Another indicator that we don’t need to be worried about catching dandruff from other people is the link with diet. If dandruff was a contagious condition, diet would make little difference.

The connection between dandruff and diet, however, is not a straightforward one. This is primarily because most of us consume lots of different food types, and each food can contain many different ingredients, especially if you consider all of the macronutrients and phytonutrients in any particular food.

Experts explain however, that providing the body with the nutrients it needs is associated with good health, and a deficiency of a nutrient or group of nutrients can lead to various different health problems.

One proven link is that between vitamins and minerals like vitamin B6, and omega-3 fatty acids.  A deficiency of these nutrients can result in increased risk of dry skin, which in turn, increases the likelihood of dandruff, rather than dandruff being a contagious condition.

Conversely, dandruff can also be associated with excessively oily skin. Diet has a role to play here too. The oils produced by the scalp are produced using the fats we consume.

This means that a diet which is high in fat provides the raw materials needed to make the oils which make the scalp too oily. Secondly, a high fat diet can also provide more food for the bacteria and fungi present on the scalp, such as Malassezia.

Dandruff and Water

Water is another essential part of the diet that many of us don’t get enough of. The body ultimately has self-preservation as the number one priority, so if we’re dehydrated, the water that’s available goes to the heart, the brain, and the other vital organs.  Skin is somewhere near the bottom of the list, and can become dry and prone to dandruff when we’re dehydrated.

Is There a Cure for Dandruff?

As experts are unable to pinpoint exactly what causes dandruff, there’s, as yet, no definitive cure.

Dandruff treatment is aimed at controlling the flakes with a medicated shampoo. There are many different types of dandruff shampoos on the market, from well-known brands to small independent producers of organic preparations.

The active ingredients of some shampoos are chemically based; others use natural ingredients like tea tree oil and Aloe vera to soothe the scalp and reduce the symptoms.

If you find one preparation doesn’t suit you, there are other products with different ingredients you can try. Whichever dandruff shampoo you use, be sure to follow the directions exactly. Some need to be left on the scalp for a period of time; others don’t, and the active ingredients can burn or damage the scalp if left on for too long.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends washing your hair with a dandruff shampoo twice a week if you’re Caucasian or Asian but only once a week for African-Americans.

When washing your hair, give it a good massage with your fingertips (not your fingernails—they can damage the skin), dry and brush your hair well after washing.


When taking all of these different factors into account, it becomes clear that dandruff isn’t a contagious health condition. It’s not transferred from person to person by touch, or by fungus spores travelling from head to head.

Rather, dandruff seems to be a condition that’s linked to how we manage our external factors, such as stress, diet and water intake.

The health of the systems in the body—the immune system, the circulatory system, the health of our skin and the nutrients we provide our bodies with all have an impact on our general health and the likelihood of suffering from dandruff.

The most important points to remember when dealing with dandruff is to find a good dandruff shampoo that works well for you, wash and brush your hair regularly as well as looking after your diet.

Education about dandruff, and in particular, the knowledge that dandruff isn’t contagious is incredibly important to anyone trying to manage this distressing condition. It may also help people to be more tolerant of those with dandruff in social and professional situations.

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